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Mrs McAleese is playing with fire

(, Irish News)

In claiming ownership of 1916 with military parades in Dublin, Bertie Ahern is taking serious risks.

Perhaps he doesn't have much choice. If the Irish government could be accused of a 1916 sell-out, Sinn Féin would pick up the pieces.

President McAleese offers support. Speaking at UCC, she lauds the voices of Patrick Pearse and 1916 'heroes' as having fostered a new confident Ireland in the longer term.

Mrs McAleese has taken risks for peace but now plays with fire.

Coming in the wake of her comments – subsequently retracted – that Protestants raised children to hate Catholics as Nazis hated Jews, her words are disturbing.

She would be wise to meditate upon fascist elements within early republicanism.

The IRA had no authority for violence or for subsequent rejection of both Irish governments. They utilised the crazy notion that their authority derived from the 1919 Dail. Their subsequent terrorist struggle against authority and the Irish minority left a terrible legacy of division.

She rejects the idea that Irish nationalism is sectarian, imperialistic or 'narrow'.

Ignoring the close relationship between these islands from time immemorial, she also contrasts dark British imperialists with poor upright 'naive' Irish patriots, even though Irish representatives sat in the British parliament.

Mrs McAleese, seemingly assuming that nationalists are Catholic, claims Irish nationalism introduced people to a 'wider segment of the world' in the universalism of Catholicism. Dietrich Bonhoeffer certainly appreciated what he saw as Catholic universalism but the Irish hierarchy was not always in tune with this, as the President knows. The special constitutional position of the Catholic church was only removed in the early 1970s but its imperialistic grip and theology underpinning it remained strong until quite recently.

Bonhoeffer lived with and died at the hands of the ultimate in nationalism in Nazi Germany.

Before his execution he regarded nationalism, which can pit one people against another, as incompatible with Christianity.

The terrorism of the small physical force minority of 1916 led to the virtual elimination of the unionist tradition throughout the 26 counties. Their bombs and bullets were on occasion aimed at entirely non-political Protestants and motivated by sectarian, ethnic and nationalist concerns.

Since then, the Irish authorities sometimes adopted a soft line on the IRA as long as their campaign was confined to the north.

Fearing the influence of leftist republicanism in the 1960s, ministers even encouraged a new and 'safer' IRA, closer to the violent antecedents of 1916.

Unfortunately no taoiseach can disown the legacy. But playing up 1916 is a risky strategy and so advisors, perhaps with more intimate knowledge of the north, came up with the idea of linking the Rising to the 'sacrifice' at the Somme. Hey Presto, noone is offended and Fianna Fail is safe.

When the President welcomed Orangemen to Aras an Uachtaran, however, Mr Ahern remained at a safe distance. Now she is again taking risks in the Taoiseach's shadow. There is a parallel between Fianna Fail and the Ulster Unionists in the 1960s. The UUP tried to take ownership of 1912 and the UVF through a massive demonstration at Balmoral. UVF relics were displayed and the largest Union Flag ever was flown. Terence O'Neill later went to Larne to unveil a plaque to 1914 gunrunners.

All this to undercut extremism while, behind the scenes, Paisleyites planned to upstage the supposed traitors.

The Ulster Hall resounded to the prayers of thanksgiving for the guns of 1914. A year later, the UVF was reformed. The 50th anniversary of 1916 brought massive republican and Paisleyite parades in Belfast. Tensions were raised and bloodshed returned to the streets.

Mrs McAleese says of 1916 'heroes' that "their deaths rise above the clamour – their voices insistent still". Thankfully, their lust for blood is at the moment only a whisper and the dogs of war are silent.

But their legacy is the utter decimation of the southern unionist community, the cowering of many 26-county Protestants, partition and fratricidal strife in the north.

Dismal ancestral voices have gained electoral success and Fianna Fail tries to restrain the spirit of 1916 by patronising its ghosts. But wiser and quieter voices urge us to reject blood and sacrificial nationalism in favour of a more peaceful and prosperous world that can accommodate increasingly diverse and free human beings.

January 31, 2006

This article appeared first in the January 30, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

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